Student Ownership: Prompts & Novella Month

You’re looking at one of my student’s illustrations. The prompt was to read a description and draw the cover of a new book (coming laaaaaaate spring, btw):

Marcus likes being a young Roman mage, but such a conspicuous combo presents problems in provincial Egypt after he and his parents relocate from Rome. Despite generously offering magical medicine to the locals, this young mage feels like an obvious outsider, sometimes wishing he were invisible. Have you ever felt that way? Marcus searches Egypt for a place to be openly accepted, and even has a run-in with the famously fiendish Sphinx! Can Marcus escape unscathed?

The result in all classes was some pretty amazing buy-in before we even got to the first page! The prompt I chose also generated class content—the source of that class’ Picture Talk—for which students don’t have to be artists like this one; stick figures are great, especially the really silly ones that get everyone laughing…

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Collaborative Storytelling: Whole-Class Writing

Back in June, I did this test of what collaborative storytelling could look like for asynchronous learning. However, the process can be used during class for even more interaction, and more story variations. This format also has the benefit of modeling writing, which can become new sources of input with timed writes typed up, edited, and read in class. This is not innovative. I’ve seen teachers do this live in the classroom. However, you might have stepped away from collaborative storytelling for a bit, or just forgotten how easy and enjoyable it can be. I’d recommend getting back into it, keeping it a regular activity throughout the year. Here are my current favorite collaborative storytelling formats for live remote learning:

Whole-Class Writing
Using the super simple story script sequence, write a story by providing either/or details for students to choose, or blank spaces for students to fill-in their own. Share out, step-by-step as teacher restates in target language, and/or submit so teacher can edit, type up, and share back to whole class. You get up to as many new stories as you have students, although I found success projecting just 2 stories; one from the class, and one from another class.

Slide Talk Stories
Screenshare/project the Slides, and scroll through to inspire story detail options. If you want students to compete over details a little more, choose two options from the Slides (e.g. “H.E.R. or Brent Faiyaz?”). Otherwise, choose one detail from the Slides, then whatever other shadow comes to mind. Use the script below for a home-run story.

WOWATS (Whole-class One Word At a Time Stories)
Generate a list of words (e.g. from most recent text, high frequency, all words students know, etc.), randomly choose one, collaborate to use the word in a story, and continue. Consider following Mike Peto’s story structure of limiting each story part to 5 minutes so ideas don’t go off the rails and it takes the whole class.

1) Who? Where? With Whom?
2) Problem
3) Fail to Solve
4) Solution

Flashcard Blitz

As a comprehension-based and communicative language teacher, I’ve largely dismissed promoting any use of flashcards due to their connection with memorization. Beyond disappointing research about this kind of explicit learning, my classroom experience has confirmed that the more students are aware of language, the less fluent they seem to become. For example, the frequent note-taking academic students are typically those who can’t respond without second-guessing themselves and checking said notes, overly concerned with accuracy, etc., which slows them down quite a bit. Above all else, teaching practices requiring memorization lead to inequity since individual differences can’t be accommodated. Then, Eric Herman lobbed some mind grenades in Acquisition Classroom Memo #39. He can be trusted to do that, and we’re all better teachers for it…

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Slide Talk Stories & Super Simple Story Script Sequence

After looking at all the collaborative storytelling options for our first class story, we decided Mike Peto’s simple structure of a 20min story—tops—was exactly what we were looking for. In preparation, I suggested that we script out some basic either/or detail options, one of which being a “shadow” (i.e. non-option), and the other what we think they’d likely choose. Student teacher Magister K suggested that we look to each class’ Slide Talk slides to find something they already liked…

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Weekly Work & Automatic Grades

Anyone who’s looked at a cluttered gradebook at the end of the term knows the feeling of “gee, I guess we didn’t need to do all that.” The gradebook should contain evidence of learning to show growth, and result in a course grade. We really only need 10-15 pieces of evidence per quarter to do that. That is, 40-60 for the whole year is plenty. Here’s how to get evidence of what students have been doing, as well as a weekly score for each student with a process that’s completely managed by students themselves!

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Vocab Lists: Sheltering, Grammar Audit, and Creativity

**Updated 8.19.20 – The DCC core list of top 1000 Latin words has just 100 cognates.**

sīgna zōdiaca Vol. 1 was published at the end of July, bringing the total vocabulary found throughout the entire Pisoverse novellas to 737 unique words, of which 316 are found on the DCC core list, and of which 319 cognates (see my last post on cognates), including 52 found on the DCC core list (i.e. Pisoverse cognates account for over 50% of the total DCC cognates). That vocabulary size is quite low for what is now almost 50,000 total words of Latin for the beginner found in 19 books. This is what is meant by sheltering (i.e. limiting) vocabulary. Of course, that sheltering didn’t just happen by chance. There have been many decisions of what to keep and what to let go, the process deliberate, and at times methodical. In this post, I share ways to shelter vocab in novellas, and how those same practical steps apply to more informal writing done in the classroom with students…

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A Glossary Isn’t Enough & Replacing Comprehension Qs with Reflection Qs

After looking at various first day/week/month materials for the beginning language learner, I was reminded that most resources include texts with way too many words, way too soon. A full glossary certainly helps, but isn’t enough. Words need to be recycled often—especially in the beginning—to have a chance of being acquired by all learners (not just the ones with an excellent memory). If your text doesn’t recycle its vocab, you should adapt it. Remember, for a text to be truly readable (i.e. without starting to become laborious), students must understand 98 words in a text with 100 different ones, 49 words in a text with 50, and pretty much every word in a text of 25 (Hsueh-Chao & Nation, 2000).

A full glossary is as close to cueing as we can get asynchronously, but we won’t know how students are using it. As part of evidence of engagement when reading a text, these Google Form reflection questions could shed light on that:


  1. How often did you look up meaning of words?
    – Hella
    – A lot
    – Sometimes
    – Not very much
  2. What was your experience of looking up words?
    – No problem at all
    (i.e. it helped you read, or you didn’t mind looking up words)
    – It was OK
    (i.e. a little annoying looking up words, but not too bad)
    – It started getting hard to read
    (i.e. looking up words started feeling like “work”)
    – I kept looking at almost every word, so “reading” was really hard to do
    (i.e. this was a bad reading experience)
  3. Would you like Mr P to give you easier & shorter texts to read?
    – Yes
    – No

The first two tell us a student’s threshold for “noise” (i.e. how much incomprehension in the input they can handle), but the last question is going to be extra important. If a lot of students opt for “yes,” we can put effort into making easier texts for all (e.g. an additional simplified tier). Alternatively, we could reach out to a few individuals with support.

Support vs. Individualized Feedback
I wrote about how individualized feedback, especially when required, is largely a waste of time. Don’t confuse providing additional input to a student with giving an individualized feedback for its own sake, about something that student completed (but doesn’t need any reply), or worse, on correct/incorrect responses. That kind of individualized feedback isn’t worth our time, and not even effective, pedagogically. When any reflection Q responses indicate comprehension, we don’t need comprehension Qs.

In fact, rather than spending time any time at all writing comprehension Qs, use data from the reflection Qs and spend time writing more comprehensible texts! That is, inasmuch as comprehension Qs are a student’s word on homework (i.e. remote learning), so are the reflections. It’s much more valuable to get a sense of how often a student is referring (i.e. signs of incomprehension) rather than percentage of X correct out of Y. Students are also more likely to report how often they used the glossary more accurately, which itself is all the comprehension data we need.

If An Hour Doesn’t Get Us One to Two Classes…

…we’re doing something wrong.

If we spend an hour preparing to teach, that hour should at least result in an entire class’ worth of content, activities, etc., and bonus if it gets us a couple more. In other words, the fruit of an hour’s labor should not result in a single activity lasting just 10-15 minutes, or a quiz that lasts the same time but adds another hour for us to check/enter in gradebook/follow up with. Even spending an hour on something that lasts half as much time in the classroom—physical, virtual, live, or asynchronous—isn’t enough juice for the squeeze, and we got alotta lemons this year…

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